Sunday, May 24, 2015

A short meditation on writing, and its tools


I gaped, slack-jawed, at the fluid strokes that ‘Mama’s’ steady hand left, as it swept across the graph paper on which Babuji’s philatelic collection was being mounted. His calligraphy seemed an extension of his shoulder, his arm, the gentle firmness of his cupped hand, his carefully fingered penmanship. It was effortless, as though the dip pen he used was a finger trailing ink, a wand. The curlicues of his ‘H’ had me gasping for air. He rendered it with such a mellifluous movement that his years of practise to achieve that √©lan disappeared in what seemed, casually natural. From that moment I was determined to master at least that one letter of the alphabet.
So I practised. Over and over again; blackening paper of all kinds and shapes—brown paper bags, from the time when stuff was given away in them in shops; the backs of used envelopes, a particular favourite (I made pads of these, after slitting them lengthwise, arranging all the blank sides facing upwards, aligning at least one side, and stapling them); tooling it into the corners of newspapers’ banners; even finger painting the motions on greasy plates, between bites.
By the time I got it in a flourish, the magnet of inevitability pulled all the other letters out of the alphabet and lined them up on the page; I couldn’t resist mastering them in an italicised cursive hand.
In hindsight, now when I reconsider ‘Mama’s’ cursive on those graph-papered philatelic sheets, I can see his amateur’s lack of confidence. The samples of showcase calligraphy that flower the Internet are strokes ahead of his tentative, tremulous style. His hesitant hand may have been curtailed because he may not have been fluent in the English language, and so lacked confidence in using it. He was good at copying words placed before him. I recall now, that he made frequent mistakes, scraping off the truant letter with a few deft flicks of a safety razor. The roughened spot bore re-inking without visible blotting, which saved him the blushes. But Babuji tolerated his lapses, as he was himself in awe of that beautiful script.
Peers, and teachers at school admired a hand that delineated near perfect joint handwriting. It had to be neat and legible. Flourishes were treated with veiled derision, and I will never forget a put down in high school, when my studiously tooled penmanship was struck out with a red nib, and a gory bland letter burned beside the excised one, in all its simple wickedness.
One graduated from a simple, un-joined hand, to cursive, or joint handwriting as one grew, for that was the way to write faster. The pen did not lift off the page after each letter, wasting time. It simply glided from one word to another, magically.
One day Babuji saw my hand and was aghast, or perhaps even ashamed. Vere Foster’s writing manuals were too zealous and missionary for my Jiddu Krishnamurty-principled school, but not so in his books. They were indeed, de rigueur qualifications for a good education. I slogged through several of those slim volumes that must have trained the hand of generations of secretaries.
Soon however, there was a sea change in the entire art. Mechanical objects took over the role of speedwriting. Typewriters became the rage. Their USP’s were several: speed, clarity, uniformity of style, neater, multiple copies, and that feel-good bonus of having worked hard all day banging those typewriter keys. All those bells, and adjustments, and forceful returns of the carriage, the judiciously gathered sheaf of carbon-interleaved paper: a parchment original, followed by two white, or yellow onionskins for copies. Though typing had its own charming rituals, and ushered a revolution in the process of communication, it erased charming social innuendos from the era of longhand writing. It wiped clear the portrait of the person behind the hand. All typed upon envelopes became bland. The task of the postman became easier, but the recipient could no longer delight upon seeing a longed-for hand, nor cringe from one that bore portents. It distanced people from one another. And no one would rub a candle over a typewritten envelope to prevent ink from running in case the post got caught in a shower. The typewriter was a dispassionate medium.
A handwritten letter was often candid about the mental state of the writer: joy, sorrow, grief, urgency, fear, love, all had their own ways of inadvertent exposure, sparking an immediate, intense emotional connect that went far beyond that conveyed by mere words. The blot of a petulant stab of the nib, the faded ink from brushed away teardrops, the electric urgency of a hurried scribble, all disappeared. As did spontaneous art doodled into a letter’s margins, or words written around sketches, or even more involved artwork. And what about the giddiness of the spontaneous note, dashed off from any remote location, in any state of being, however uncomfortable, as compared to the mandatory angular furniture a typewriter required? No more ink-stained fingers identified a scribe. The typewriter was not for such people of letters. An entire facet of handwritten letters vanished with the mechanisation of the art.
But one had to keep up with the Jones’, and learning to type was a must. The efficiency of the apparatus captivated. We became adept at operating it; developed fascinations for its few idiosyncrasies: the aluminium-cased, portable, Baby Hermes with its large letters; the paper supports that swung upright; the two-toned cloth ribbon that came into play when we depressed a special key to raise the ribbon vibrator to align the red inked portion to the hammering type bar for red impressions; the concentration required for spooling in a new ribbon; the delicate jostling of limp onionskin sheets to align edges before inserting a sheaf into the platen; the industrial power of typing full tilt, fingertips kissing the keys, the clickety-clack of the type bars striking ribbon to paper, a mechanical music. Then came electric typewriters, with thermal transfer ribbons, and memory banks; then the metamorphosing digital revolution.
I like to believe that this overpowering dependence upon complicated machinery revived the romantic charm of putting pen to paper. It’s a simple, direct, tactile system of making thought visible, and communicable. Its execution is seamless. It’s results, immediate, tangible, pliable, and effective. One connects to it emotionally, for one has crafted it oneself: each up-stroke, each down-stroke, each curve, and flourish. It imparts the spiritual satisfaction of working with one’s hands, like kneeling in the soil, and planting a garden. The elemental connect between paper, pen, hand, eye, and mind draws out thought.
All those who write, and pride themselves for it (pride being essential here, for I hear that cursive is now considered expendable from curricula, allowing artificiality to usurp another wonderful natural human trait), have favourite tools to ply their trade, collectively called stationery.
In my younger days, writing instruments, pens, pencils, even ballpoint pens, were just that. They never assumed a life of their own. They were tools to accomplish a job. Any attachment between the writer and his or her writing tools was simply functional. The need for speed, however, transformed perceptions. Pens and their ilk, which had sustained the conversion of thoughts into visible words, were sacrificed at the altar of mechanical, and digital speed, and other attendant conveniences. I too was swept up in this wave of change, but not completely.
The metamorphic gene had a spanner in the works—the diary. I had begun writing mine in college, and have kept at it since then. Our relationship has blown hot and cold over the years, but has endured—saving not just shards of a life, but also that delightful made-for-each-other relationship of pen and paper; the intensely personal satisfaction of filling a blank page with cursive thoughts.
I use digital technology all the time to write: e-mail, word processors, and the social media platforms on a smartphone. But thoughts flow only when I stare at a blank page, with a pen in my hand. My first drafts are always physical acts fuelled by the visceral nature of writing in longhand. Once done, they are copied into a word processor. Further drafts, and copyediting may continue on the computer, but often I carry with me a printed version, and copyedit on the go, impulsively, which is only possible with the simple, classic combination of pen and paper. Physical copyediting is closer to playing god with a manuscript, than digital track changes can ever be. I run sentences through with my gore-tipped Pilot Tecpoint. I even walk away from the battlefield, abandoning a bloodied, massacred manuscript.
Initially my diary comprised any notebook with a semi-glossy paper of fine quality, so that it did not blot ink. After a couple of hardbound volumes, I discovered spiral bound notebooks; the convenience of flipping them 360 degrees to bring the recto closer to my body (I am a southpaw), was not only more convenient, but also facilitated working in restricted spaces. A case in point being those palm-sized pads I use in the field when birding. But two years ago the Moleskine seduced me. I couldn’t resist its charismatic antecedence—the object of choice of that intrepid globetrotter, Bruce Chatwin, and his illustrious, multi-talented predecessors, Vincent, Pablo, and Ernest. I’m partial to blank, un-ruled Moleskine notebooks.
For long-form writing I use plain, un-ruled yellow A4 sheets. A sheaf of three or four cushions the pressures of penmanship, and eradicates the inconvenient step, across which the palm’s outer edge perforce rests, if writing upon a gathering of more sheets. Initially I took a pencil to the paper: the traditional, hexagonal wooden one, my favourite being the black-and-yellow Staedtler 2B. I kept several sharpened when writing, working through the lot as they blunted one by one, not breaking the flow of thought to re-sharpen any. That way I also limited the length of my ramblings. I liked the firm resistance of the table, and the crayon-give of the softer lead.
For long I’ve used those fine writing instruments produced by the Japanese Pilot Corporation. I was initially a fan of their ‘HiTecpoint 0.5’, till I graduated to the ‘jV5 Hi-Tecpoint (0.5)’, now marketed by Luxor in India. They are convenient, trustworthy, and satisfying. I still use a red one for skirmishing during copyediting.
The ballpoint pen is a marvellous and ingenious invention, but pedestrian. It has not chutzpah. No presence. It is functional, and dependable even. But lacks the “ah!” moment that the unscrewing of a fountain pen’s cap excites, “I like that pen!”
Fountain pens resurfaced in my life when my brother presented me with a beastly Montblanc Meisterstr√ľk. Life has changed forever since that watershed. I had bought myself a Sailor before the Swiss mountain came to me, but was left uncharmed by its small size, though it is efficient and smooth. It’s improved much with constant use, and my vigorous doodling to run-in the nib.

Sometimes nostalgia shades mundane objects with romanticism. One day I rummaged in a lower drawer, and retrieved some fountain pens from my student days. They stand on my desk now, lovingly rejuvenated and recharged, and fit into my cupped fist with a startling snugness. An astonishingly smooth Parker 51, and a green and chrome Sheaffer. They’ve both withstood the test of time and flaunt their pedigree. I rue that somewhere in the past I disposed a Parker 61 I’d used in school. It was turquoise, with a heritage silver and gold cap, and sucked ink via an unbelievably cool capillary action; one just had to stand it upside-down in an ink-bottle! It had perhaps jammed with disuse. I could have had it cleaned, but didn’t know better.
I like writing longhand. It forces me to slow down amidst the sapping frenetic pace that life is lived out around me. It allows me to savour skills I learnt as a child and have retained. It evokes thought and argument in the mind, it coaxes complete sentences before they are written down, resulting in a cleaner draft; unlike the think-while-you-type hurried writing on computers, where errors can be wiped clean by pushing a button, which is not the point. It connects me with corners and alcoves of my mind, and atrophying surfaces of my heart. It creates a circle that completes me.
When did you, dear reader, write with pen on paper last?